Monday, November 29, 2010

Major Art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2007)

You’ll have picked up that I’m not a sports nut of any kind, and I’m not equipped to muse about the ethics or aesthetics of those pursuits. So with that stipulated, I’ll throw out that I’m always puzzled by the regular scandals about steroids and other illicit pumping-up of “natural” ability. These practices, we’re told, are unfair; it’s cheating; it sets a bad example for the kids. As if much of anything in the bloated contemporary carcass of professional sport could be salvaged as an unmitigated good example. But anyway, the average athlete now is developed and maintained within a fitness, diet, and technological support regime having nothing to do with golden memories of sporting tradition. What’s “natural,” within this infrastructure, is a meaningless line in the corporate sand. Have everyone playing naked with 50-year-old equipment and then maybe we’ll see who’s really got the inherent distance over the others.

My Kid Could Paint That

But of course I’m forgetting about The Rules. However silly and degraded the parameters of fairness may be, the consensus about their applicability remains pretty strong. There’s every reason it would of course – even a minor sputtering in the professional sports machine would be an economic cataclysm far outpacing any hurricane or wildfire. Every time a child is born into a sports nut household, a CEO kisses his stock options.

None of which matters to me because, as I said, that’s not the house I live in. I’m more of your arty type. But watching Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary My Kid Could Paint That, a film in large part about the nature of art, I found myself drifting into the distraction set out above. Because more and more, the same could apply to art and culture. Of course, art doesn’t have rules in the sense that sport does. But it’s clear that notions of an artwork’s importance and influence often depend less on any rationalized internal merit than on how well it relates to a Bigger Story. The story may be (and indeed usually is) glib or crass, but it’s Established. And once it’s out there, like an incubator, it makes mountains out of dirt.

An obvious example – the obsession with weekend box office, now dutifully reported on every other news show. Only a tiny fraction of people go to the movies on any given weekend, and everyone knows that the question of what movies get widely exposed or don’t is a revenue-driven calculation, not an aesthetic one. It's virtually exactly the same as reporting which of the sundry new arrivals in the nation’s Loblaws and Sobeys flew most quickly off the shelves (which, frankly, would probably be more immediately useful to most viewers). But the one would seem tawdry and crass, whereas the box office derby seems culturally meaningful. Not to mention of course that it’s a convenient, ever-renewing springboard for wretched jovial chitchat.

Marla Olmstead

Bar-Lev’s film tracks another kind of example. Marla Olmstead was a 4-year-old girl from New York State, who liked to splash paint around on a canvas like many kids do. Her “work” (all entirely abstract and non-representational, but very vivid and colourful and nicely balanced) came to the attention of a local dealer, and then started selling, soon for tens of thousands of dollars at a time. With a big waiting list and worldwide media coverage, Marla’s career seemed to be set, until an edition of 60 Minutes suggested she might be getting more than a little help from Daddy (it was pivotal to this that a hidden camera, set up to record the artist at work, yielded only a single painting plainly inferior to the rest of the oeuvre, along with evidence of coaching). The interest in Marla took a dive.

At this point, Bar-Lev was already spending much time in the Olmstead household, filming a documentary intended to focus on the nature of art: even if the paintings seemed to have merit, what does it mean to valorize the work of a little girl who can’t tell you the first thing about why she did what she did. But the 60 Minutes expose shook his confidence, increasing his own need for proof – because in all the time he spent hanging out there, Marla would never paint on camera, supposedly out of shyness. A further video, organized by the family, only increased his doubts, and the project soon came to an unhappy, unresolved end.

The film has been widely admired as a “meditation on truth,” but I think this gives Bar-Lev too much credit. His wavering about his project is interesting to watch, and you sort of admire his decency in going easy on the family. But the fact remains that he could have used his access to resolve the mystery beyond any reasonable doubt – he could have set up his own hidden cameras, or questioned the kid more directly during his sessions alone with her, among other things. Even given the rather wishy-washy material that Bar-Lev delivers, his film seems to me to deliver virtual certainty that Mr. Olmstead (an amateur painter making a living as a night manager at Frito-Lay) heavily refined and prettified his daughter’s efforts, at a minimum. But Bar-Lev prefers not to reach such a conclusion, nor even to think about it very rigorously (there’s a general sense through the film that the 60 Minutes piece was a scummy low-blow, although it seems to have engaged more rigorously with the specific issue than Bar-Lev ever did).

Closer To God

More interesting is why it matters. If the thing looks that good on your wall, who cares that it’s (say) 80% or even 50% Marla, rather than 100%? A couple of the collectors interviewed in the film speak almost religiously about the work, as if harking back to the old notion of the artist being a vessel of God. Perhaps only an innocent and inexpressive artist can now carry true transcendent virtue, because only she could allow a pure transcription of His guiding spirit. Any adult intervention would immediately banish God’s signature, rendering even the most beautiful work merely another technical achievement.

In that case of course, it barely matters what the painting looks like, because you’re really paying to have the sainted stigmata on your wall. The artwork becomes merely a trace, an index. The case of Marla Olmstead (who apparently is still painting by the way, with her price tags again on an upward momentum) is a particularly vivid example of this recurring prototype. Because, if you buy that analysis, swooning over a vessel of God is certainly more virtuous than capitulating to big business (or to whatever Britney or Paris represent). Maybe it’s so with sports too – maybe for all my cynicism, there are still enough people who see Floyd Landis or Marian Jones as emissaries of something elementally wonderful and whose hearts are all but broken when that virtue is compromised. I sympathize, but I think we should all be more careful about where we invest our passions.

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